‘Trigger warnings’ trigger college debate

Giving students a heads up about potentially disturbing course material

We’ve all seen the familiar warning preceding TV shows: “The following program contains material that may be disturbing.Viewer discretion is advised.” Online, the term “trigger warning” is a common notation on women’s blogs and forums to alert readers, particularly victims of sexual abuse, of content they might want to avoid.

Now several universities, spurred by student groups, are considering adding trigger warnings to course material that some students may find disturbing. That may include references to rape and violence as well as racism.

In February, the Associated Students Senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution to begin adding mandatory trigger warnings to class syllabi. The resolution would require professors to warn students ahead of time of material that may affect them, while protecting the grades of any student who decides to opt out of attending class that day.

Rutgers University, George Washington University and the University of Michigan are among a handful of other schools considering the trigger warning requirement.

Earlier this year, the Office of Equity Concerns at Oberlin College in Ohio issued guidelines asking faculty to be sensitive to traumatized students and to adjust their teaching accordingly.

“In an Oberlin class that contains 20 students, we estimate that there may be about two to three students in the class who have experienced some form of sexualized violence,” the guideline read. “You may have taught and may continue to teach individuals who have experienced significant trauma.”

But after the guidelines became public—and were ridiculed in the press—they were rescinded.

Well-intentioned or not, trigger-warning proposals have drawn considerable criticism from a number of groups, including faculty. What began as a concern for student welfare has escalated into charges of coddling and a debate over the very purpose of education.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Middlebury College (Vt.) sociology professor Laurie Essig said, “The world is a painful and anxiety-inducing place, and human representations of the world are often painful to consume. But rather than retreating into a world where our courses are reduced to viewings of ‘My Little Pony,’ let’s all put on our big-girl panties and face that world together. Let’s talk about it, think about it, write about it, analyze it and, in the end, learn to engage fully with all of it, even those parts that cause us to curl up in pain and sob. Because that’s what a real education requires, and limiting ourselves to pretty images of rainbow ponies is not enough to know the world.”

“The trigger warning—if it is to be used at all—should appear on the application to college itself,” wrote teacher Kenneth Bernstein on the Daily Kos website. “Please be aware that you will be challenged here, you will be exposed to ideas you cannot now imagine, you will experience times of cognitive dissonance and intellectual vertigo, and you will likely be transformed in some unscripted and unpredictable ways. If that doesn’t appeal to you, stay home in the comfort of your couch and your familiar books and things.”

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